Rembrandt (1606-1669) was a Dutch baroque artist who ranks as one of the greatest painters in the history of Western art. His full name was Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, and he possessed a profound understanding of human nature that was matched by a brilliant technique- not only in painting but in drawing and etching- and his work made an enormous impact on his contemporaries and influenced the style of many later artists. Perhaps no painter has ever equaled Rembrandt’s chiaroscuro effects or his bold impasto.
Born in Leiden on July 15, 1606, Rembrandt was the son of a miller. Despite the fact that he came from a family of relatively modest means, his parents took great care with his education. Rembrandt began his studies at the Latin School, and at the age of 14 he was enrolled at the University of Leiden. The program did not interest him, and he soon left to study art-first with a local master, Jacob van Swanenburch, and then, in Amsterdam, with Pieter Lastman, known for his historical paintings. After six months, having mastered everything he had been taught, Rembrandt returned to Leiden, where he was soon so highly regarded that although barely 22 years old, he took his first pupils, among them Gerrit Dou.
Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam in 1631; his marriage in 1634 to Saskia van Uylenburgh, the cousin of a successful art dealer, enhanced his career, bringing him in contact with wealthy patrons who eagerly commissioned portraits. An exceptionally fine example from this period is the Portrait of Nicolaes Ruts (1631, Frick Collection, New York City). In addition, Rembrandt’s mythological and religious works were much in demand, and he painted numerous dramatic masterpieces such as The Blinding of Samson (1636, Stдdelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt). Because of his renown as a teacher, his studio was filled with pupils, some of whom (such as Carel Fabritius) were already trained artists. In the 20th century, scholars have reattributed a number of his paintings to his associates; attributing and identifying Rembrandt’s works is an active area of art scholarship.
In contrast to his successful public career, however, Rembrandt’s family life was marked by misfortune. Between 1635 and 1641 Saskia gave birth to four children, but only the last, Titus, survived; her own death came in 1642. Hendrickje Stoffels, engaged as his housekeeper about 1649, eventually became his common-law wife and was the model for many of his pictures.
Despite Rembrandt’s financial success as an artist, teacher, and art dealer, his penchant for ostentatious living forced him to declare bankruptcy in 1656. An inventory of his collection of art and antiquities, taken before an auction to pay his debts, showed the breadth of Rembrandt’s interests: ancient sculpture, Flemish and Italian Renaissance paintings, Far Eastern art, contemporary Dutch works, weapons, and armor. Unfortunately, the results of the auction-including the sale of his house-were disappointing.
These problems in no way affected Rembrandt’s work; if anything, his artistry increased. Some of the great paintings from this period are The Jewish Bride (1632), The Syndics of the Cloth Guild (1661, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), Bathsheba (1654, Musйe du Louvre, Paris), Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph (1656, Staatliche Gemдldegalerie, Kassel, Germany), and a self-portrait (1658, Frick Collection). His personal life, however, continued to be marred by sorrow, for his beloved Hendrickje died in 1663, and his son, Titus, in 1668. Eleven months later, on October 4, 1669, Rembrandt died in Amsterdam.
Rembrandt may have created more than 600 paintings as well as an enormous number of drawings and etchings. The style of his earliest paintings, executed in the 1620s, shows the influence of his teacher, Pieter Lastman, in the choice of dramatic subjects, crowded compositional arrangements, and emphatic contrasts of light and shadow. The Noble Slav (1632, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City) shows Rembrandt’s love of exotic costumes, a feature characteristic of many of his early works.
A magnificent canvas, Portrait of a Man and His Wife (1633, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston), shows his early portrait style-his preoccupation with the sitters’ features and with details of clothing and room furnishings; this careful rendering of interiors was to be eliminated in his later works. Members of Rembrandt’s family who served as his models are sometimes portrayed in other guises, as in Rembrandt’s Mother as the Prophetess Anna (1631, Rijksmuseum), or the wistful Saskia as Flora, (1634, the Hermitage, Saint Petersburg).
Perhaps no artist ever painted as many self-portraits (about 60), or subjected himself to such penetrating self-analysis. Not every early portrayal, however, can be interpreted as objective representation, for these pictures frequently served as studies of various emotions, later to be incorporated into his biblical and historical paintings. The self-portraits also may have served to demonstrate his command of chiaroscuro; thus, it is difficult to tell what Rembrandt looked like from such a self-portrait as the one painted about 1628 (Rijksmuseum, on loan from the Daan Cevat Collection, England), in which deep shadows cover most of his face, barely revealing his features. On the other hand, in none of these youthful self-portraits did he attempt to disguise his homely features.
Biblical subjects account for about one-third of Rembrandt’s entire production. This was somewhat unusual in Protestant Holland of the 17th century, for church patronage was nonexistent and religious art was not regarded as important. In Rembrandt’s early biblical works, drama was emphasized, in keeping with baroque taste.
Among Rembrandt’s first major public commissions in Amsterdam was the Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp (1632, Mauritshuis, The Hague). This work depicts the regents of the Guild of Surgeons gathered for a dissection and lecture. Such group portraits were a genre unique to Holland and meant substantial income for an artist in a country where neither church nor royalty acted as patrons of art. Rembrandt’s painting surpasses commemorative portraits made by other Dutch artists with its interesting pyramidal arrangement of the figures, lending naturalism to the scene.
Many of Rembrandt’s paintings of the 1640s show the influence of classicism in style and spirit. A 1640 self-portrait (National Gallery, London), based on works by the Italian Renaissance artists Raphael and Titian, reflects his assimilation of classicism both in formal organization and in his expression of inner calm. In the Portrait of the Mennonite Preacher Anslo and His Wife (1641, Staatliche Museen, Berlin-Dahlem), quieter in feeling than his earlier work, the interplay between the figures is masterfully rendered; the preacher speaks, perhaps explaining a biblical passage to his wife, who quietly listens. A number of Rembrandt’s other works depict dialogues and, like this one, represent one specific moment. In the moving Supper at Emmaus (1648, Musйe du Louvre), Rembrandt’s use of light immediately conveys the meaning of the scene.
His group portraiture continued to develop in richness and complexity. The so-called Night Watch-more accurately titled The Shooting Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq (1642, Rijksmuseum)-portrays the bustling activity of a military company, gathered behind its leaders, preparing for a parade or shooting contest. In departing from the customary static mode of painting rows of figures for the corporate portrait, Rembrandt achieved a powerful dramatic effect. Despite the popular myth that the painting was rejected by those who commissioned it, and led to a decline in Rembrandt’s reputation and fortune, it was actually well received. Many of Rembrandt’s landscapes in this middle period are romantic and based on his imagination rather than recording specific places. The inclusion of ancient ruins and rolling hills, not a part of the flat Dutch countryside, as in River Valley with Ruins (Staatliche Gemдldegalerie, Kassel), suggests a classical influence derived from Italy.
Rembrandt’s greatest paintings were created during the last two decades of his life. Baroque drama, outward splendor, and superficial details no longer mattered to him. His self-portraits, portrayals of single figures and groups, and historical and religious works reveal a concern with mood and with spiritual qualities. His palette grew richly coloristic and his brushwork became increasingly bold; he built thick impastos that seem miraculously to float over the canvas. In Portrait of the Painter in Old Age (1669?, National Gallery, London), Rembrandt’s features betray a slightly sarcastic mood. One of his finest single portraits (1654, Stichting Jan Six, Amsterdam) is that of Jan Six. Six, wearing a deeply colored red, gold, and gray costume, is shown putting on a glove. The portrait is painted in a semiabstract style that demonstrates Rembrandt’s daring technical bravura. Six’s quiet, meditative mood is expressed by the subtle play of light on his face. In such late biblical works as Potiphar’s Wife Accusing Joseph (1655, Staatliche Museen, Berlin-Dahlem), and the very moving Return of the Prodigal Son (1669?, the Hermitage) Rembrandt concentrated on the inherent psychological drama rather than on the excitement of the narrative as he had in works of his early period. In general, after his early period, Rembrandt was not particularly interested in allegorical and mythological subjects.
For Rembrandt, drawing and etching were as much major vehicles of expression as painting. Some 1400 drawings, recording a wide range of outward and inner visions, are attributed to him, works mostly done for their own sake rather than as preparatory studies for paintings or prints. The majority of them are not signed, because they were made for his private use. Rembrandt’s early drawings (of the 1630s) were frequently executed in black or red chalk; later his favorite medium became pen and ink on white paper, often in combination with brushwork, lending a tonal accent. In some drawings, such as The Finding of Moses (1635?, Rijksprentenkabinet, Amsterdam), a few charged lines indicating three figures carry maximum expression. Other drawings were, in contrast, highly finished, such as The Eastern Gate at Rhenen (Oostpoort) (1648?, Musйe, Bayonne, France), which displays details of architecture and perspective. He made masterful drawings throughout the early as well as mature phases of his career. An example of an early work is Portrait of a Man in an Armchair, Seen Through a Frame (1634, private collection, New York City), done in chalk, considered Rembrandt’s most finished portrait drawing. Superb later works are Nathan Admonishing David (1655-1656?, Metropolitan Museum), done with a reed pen, and a genre piece, A Woman Sleeping (Hendrickje?) (1655?, British Museum, London), a powerful brush drawing universally praised as one of his finest.
Rembrandt’s etchings were internationally renowned even during his lifetime. He exploited the etching process for its unique potential, using scribbling strokes to produce extraordinarily expressive lines. In combination with etching he employed the drypoint needle, achieving special effects with the burr in his mature graphic work. Indeed, Rembrandt’s most impressive etchings date from his mature period. They include the magnificent full-length portrait of Jan Six (1647, Bibliothиque Nationale, Paris), the famous Christ Healing the Sick, also known as the 100 Guilder Print (1642-1645?), the poetic landscape Three Trees (1643), and Christ Preaching, or La Petite Tombe (1652?), all in the British Museum.